October, 2021
SSWDIS Newsletter



Dear Current and Prospective SSDIS Members,

As education professionals, many of us strive to ensure that our classrooms are accessible, inclusive, and equitable for the students that we work with, whether in a traditional classroom or in an online setting. Yet, our present-day challenges have forced us to rethink what these terms mean. The pandemic has brought education to the forefront of the international community’s gaze, acknowledging that although many of the challenges that our students have experienced during the past year and a half were unforeseeable, the education of an entire generation was severely interrupted. It can be argued that this disruption was intensified for students with significant learning challenges in comparison to their neurotypical peers, as the adaptations and accommodations that make a classroom accessible, inclusive, and equitable were often left on the backburner as teachers fought to maintain some semblance of normality. For students with individual education plans (IEP), individual learning plans (ILPs), or other forms of accommodations and services, the pandemic brought with it additional challenges as many of the supports once put into place were absent from online settings, furthering the educational and digital divide. As we look to the future with uncertainty of what lies ahead, we must think about what the terms accessibility, inclusion, and equity imply. We must ask ourselves how we will address the needs of students with significant learning challenges in the wake of Covid-19. This current issue reflects on such terminology and asks us to think about our own teaching practices when working with multilingual learners who face such challenges in the English language classroom.

As demonstrated since the creation of our interest section, SSDIS is deeply committed to accessibility, inclusion, and equity. We understand the need for a body of resources that represents the wide range of educational experiences that we seek to serve. We ask you, our current and prospective members, to help build this platform so that we can continue to serve not only our diverse student population, but also to support one another. In the coming years, we hope to continue to develop our platform not only within TESOL but onward. This goal is unachievable without your continued support. We need to find ways to come together to create a body of knowledge and resources that can help equip us for what lies ahead. As our Interest Section grows, we will call on you to share your experiences and expertise with other like-minded educators through our various platforms including but not limited to publishing in our newsletter, attending or presenting in our webinar series, attending or presenting at our TESOL events both locally and internationally, attending our virtual gatherings, and finally sharing materials digitally through our social media channels such as MyTESOL and Facebook. By working together, we can begin to address the significant challenges our learners continue to face and evaluate what accessibility, inclusion, and equity look like in our classroom practice.

In solidarity,

Rosa Dene David

Current Chair, Supporting Students with Disabilities Interest Section (SSDIS-IS)


Jimalee Sowell

Solange Lopes Murphy

Hola and Hello!

We are delighted to share our fifth issue of Difference and Disability Matters, the newsletter for the Supporting Students with Disabilities Interest Section.

In the last year, many of us have experienced numerous and often dramatic shifts in our professional and personal circumstances. While in recent months many schools have opened their doors for face-to-face instruction, some are still operating on hybrid models, and in some locations, instruction might still be carried out in an online mode only; for some, formal instruction might remain halted. Whatever the mode of delivery of instruction, for many educators and learners, the current situation still presents many challenges and constraints. In spite of the difficulties, however, the pandemic situation has directed many of us towards innovation and resourcefulness in meeting the needs of our learners. For many of us, arriving at these spaces might have entailed some struggle. We have realized that we need to think differently about how we approach and execute instruction. Part of that change might have directed us to reflect in an intensive and concentrated manner on our beliefs about our practices and our actual practices. While we might have a good understanding of current theories and the body of research supporting them, do we implement them in our pedagogy? While we might talk about student-agency and providing our students opportunities to teach us how they learn, do we actually provide our learners the opportunity to direct us toward the best ways to help them based on what they know about their own learning? Most of us would agree to the potentially damaging effects of labels, but do we truly move into a mindset where we see our learners as they are and not as the labels they have been given—whether those labels relate to a diagnosis or other ways that we might categorize, such as labels pertaining to race or nationality, ability, or disability? The articles in the current issue probe us to think deeply about the connections between beliefs and practices, the ways we might categorize and label through a normative lens, and the extent to which research on assessing multilingual learners for disabilities has informed and guided instructional practices in real classroom contexts.

The first article focuses on research that shows how English language teachers align and, in some cases, fail to align their teaching practices with the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This article contributes to the body of literature on the infusion of the UDL framework in classroom practices and offers recommendations on ways to increase students’ opportunities to learn. We are also pleased to share an interview with Maya Rejepova, an English language instructor in Turkmenistan. Maya shares with us experiences of working with visually-impaired students in her English language classes. Her story demonstrates how we can better assist our learners by providing them opportunities to voice their learning strategies and best practices. This piece also unveils the need for increased professional training on how to work with multilingual learners who are visually impaired. In the third article, Andy Curtis, 50th president of the TESOL International Association, talks about intersections of his life and labels. Through Curtis’s narrative, we are encouraged to see ourselves through a lens that might be called “different” and to examine the ways in which we compartmentalize and use labels.

This issue also includes announcements of upcoming events and resources. If you are interested in submitting an article, a book review, or a nomination for an interview with someone who would like to share their story of learning or teaching or both, we encourage you to also look at our call for proposals. We would love to hear from you. We strive to be an inclusive outlet, and as such, welcome contributions from native and nonnative English speakers alike, as well as submissions in a variety of media in addition to writing.

Abraços e tenham um ótimo semestre,

Jimalee and Solange



Bryn Keck

Kimberly Cacciato

    Shelly Rasnitsyn

     Solange Lopes                 Murphy


In the past decades, U.S. schools have seen a significant increase in students receiving English as a second language services. These students include those with formal education in their first language, those with disrupted or little-to-no formal schooling, and those born in the U.S. and simultaneously learning multiple languages. Circumstances such as home context, level of literacy in the native language, and readiness for academic work (Lopes-Murphy, 2020) affect the learning experience of each multilingual learner (ML) differently. MLs are a heterogeneous group, with each learner having unique linguistic, academic, cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs resulting from the diverse experiences they bring to their classrooms. To support learning for all students, classroom instruction and assessment methods must then consider those experiences as well as students’ funds of knowledge, stressors, and areas of need before assuming their struggles may be caused by a disability.

When developing proficiency in a new language, it is common for MLs to have difficulty following directions, comprehending written or oral language, and communicating—tasks which are necessary for academic success. However, when those struggles extend beyond what is expected or when assessment scores are not satisfactory, a discussion on disability may begin. Before considering a disability, it is worth recognizing that acquiring a new language is a complex task that requires several years before fluency can be achieved. Therefore, instructional and assessment strategies sensitive to the language development process are imperative when determining if difficulties stem from socio-cultural or linguistic factors versus an internal condition. Learning a language and having a disability are different but not mutually exclusive. Thus, it is important to prevent misidentification of MLs as having a disability and to ensure that individual needs are met if they are correctly identified as needing special considerations.

Increasing Access Through Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to increase accessibility and ensure equitability for all in instructional settings. Accessible classroom environments account for the internal and external variables that affect students and reduce barriers for academic success. Particularly for MLs, “UDL provides a set of guidelines that can help teachers design flexible instruction that addresses learner variability while providing essential support for language and literacy development” (Rao & Torres, 2016, p. 461). Language acquisition can be integrated into the curriculum, which increases opportunities for MLs to develop the new language while learning content knowledge. Most importantly, “UDL provides a roadmap for educators to think through the process of identifying barriers to learning and working to remove them” (Rice Doran, 2015, p. 4).

The framework is guided by three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Multiple means of engagement help students to consider the “why” of learning through student choice and autonomy, fostering collaboration and communication, and developing self-assessment and reflection (CAST, 2021). Multiple means of representation focus on the “what” of learning through alternative modes of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic stimuli, and by activating or supplying background knowledge (CAST, 2021). Multiple means of action and expression, or the “how” of learning, may consider assistive technologies, multiple media for communication, and appropriate goal-setting aligned to different English proficiency levels (CAST, 2021) to offer students choices in demonstrating mastery of knowledge and learning. Using the three principles of UDL helps to craft lessons that give students ample opportunities to learn and be assessed in multiple and equitable manners.


As part of our graduate course project in spring 2021, the researchers conducted field interviews and observations to explore teaching and assessment practices for identifying, evaluating, and supporting MLs with or without disabilities. Twenty-four observations and interviews were conducted in K-12 ESL, general, Special, and Deaf education (with American Sign Language as the classroom language) classrooms in virtual, in-person, and hybrid settings with teachers who have experience working with MLs and/or MLs with disabilities. Eight teams, composed of three students each, collected data and compared, contrasted, and synthesized findings for class presentations.

Four Consistent Practices for Supporting or Evaluating MLs

While the teachers interviewed and observed implemented many different strategies in their instruction and assessment of MLs, with or without disabilities, four practices that fit into the framework of UDL were widely used.


Translanguaging (García, 2009) is a practice that encourages students to use their accumulated linguistic resources to access the language around them and problem-solve language challenges. Translanguaging can provide students with choice in how to approach academic language. One teacher was observed using translanguaging in the classroom by explicitly presenting connections between new vocabulary words by encouraging the student to think out loud in his native language then helping him to recreate those thoughts in the target language. Students benefit from the linguistic opportunities provided by translanguaging, and teachers support the “recruiting interest” element of UDL by simultaneously promoting autonomy and minimizing barriers to learning.

Peer Collaboration

When providing opportunities for MLs to work with peers, teachers have “more freedom to circulate and support students who need extra help” (Rice Doran, 2015, p. 9), and MLs can receive assistance from peers while the teacher is working with others. In our observations, the researchers saw ML students paired with strong English speakers who provided explanations or clarification of written text allowing the ML to focus on the content instead of on the nuances of language, thus increasing content accessibility and engagement.

Multimodal Learning

Multimodal learning opportunities provide options for language support through the use of visual, audio, hands-on, and kinesthetic activities. During observations, the researchers saw teachers use anchor charts, lesson slides, and graphic organizers as visual tools to highlight big ideas, guide information selection, and support the processing and organizing of new information, including vocabulary in students’ multiple languages. Also, vocabulary posters presented words paired with pictures and included versions in different languages, allowing access to the vocabulary through the L1, L2, or the picture. Bilingual dictionaries were also available to students. For audio input, teachers provided access to audiobooks, used captions for videos, and paired visual and audio input to provide students with multiple ways to access the content and to increase engagement.

Teachers also incorporated physical movement into reading lessons. For example, one teacher was observed using language mats, having students stand on the mat labeled with their L1 and read in their L1; then the students would move to the L2 labeled mat and read in their L2. During interviews, teachers emphasized the importance of multisensory learning to meet the various needs of MLs and increase accessibility, engagement, and retention of words, concepts, or directions.

Culturally Responsive Classroom

Since all students have their own cultural identity influenced by their geographical location, race, ethnicity, (Dis) ability, religion, gender, and other factors, which contribute to their language, norms, values, and so on, teachers highlighted the importance of culturally sensitive practices to promote relevance, authenticity, and a safe learning environment. Culturally responsive strategies observed included “native language buddies” or “culture buddies” and opportunities to authentically infuse each student’s culture into classroom activities and instruction. For example, students' unique funds of knowledge were valued during classroom discussions of new vocabulary words. Definitions and usage were examined together, building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences. Students were more engaged, and learning became more accessible when students were empowered to construct meaning through sharing of their individual thoughts and experiences.

Observed Practices Not in Line with UDL

While the researchers observed practices recommended by research, the researchers also observed practices that did not adhere to the UDL principles compromising access and equity. Below are some examples of practices the researchers observed or recorded that were not in line with UDL.

Teacher as a Presenter versus Teacher as a Facilitator

A significant number of the lessons observed followed the teacher-centered model of instruction with the teacher presenting information, and the students passively receiving it. In these cases, differentiation was done in the form of different independent work or additional teacher-led small group instruction time. These practices miss out on key opportunities for student collaboration.

Collaboration Amongst Professionals

Although the teachers interviewed recognized the value of professional collaboration, in general terms, for student learning, their responses suggested the lack of collaborative initiatives in their professional contexts. Collaboration is especially crucial to correctly assess and identify MLs for disabilities; thus, intentionally including a language specialist during all levels of discussion is critical.

Culture and Access

While some teachers used culturally responsive teaching to support student learning, during our data collection, the researchers saw examples of teachers not considering how culture affects a student’s access to information.

In one observation, an ML student was confused by the writing prompt given because it referenced a cultural dining experience that he had never heard of or experienced. The lesson was not accessible to the student due to a lack of background information. In another observation, a Deaf student’s interpreter was missing for part of the day; thus, that student could not access the lesson or gain meaning from that time. Although the teacher bears no responsibility for the interpreting services, the school should have sought an alternative plan of action to support the learner’s access to the content.

Both these situations posed barriers to equity of opportunity in the classroom and threats to authentic assessment data. It is a great responsibility for teachers to choose materials representative of all students' cultures and build background knowledge and understanding as needed to provide equitable access during instruction and assessment.


While these observations provide only a glimpse into the practices used in some classrooms and the extent to which those practices connect with the UDL principles, they do raise important questions about equitable opportunities and access in classrooms with MLs, particularly as they are evaluated for disabilities. In order to prevent inappropriate identification and to ensure appropriate services for MLs and dually-identified MLs with disabilities, the use of UDL decreases the barriers that MLs face and increases accessibility, and engagement, thereby, creating greater equity for all learners.


García, O. (2009). Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. K. Mohanty & M. Panda (Eds.), Social Justice through Multilingual Education (pp.140–158). Multilingual Matters. https://doi.org/10.21832/9781847691910-011

Lopes-Murphy, S. A. (2020). Contention between English as a second language and special education services for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Latin American Journal of Content and Language Integrated Learning, 13(1), 43–56. https://doi.org/10.5294/laclil.2020.13.1.3

Rao, K., & Torres, C. (2016). Supporting academic and affective learning processes for English language learners with Universal Design for Learning. TESOL Quarterly, 51(2), 460–472. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.342

Rice Doran, P. (2015). Language accessibility in the classroom: How UDL can promote success for linguistically diverse learners. Exceptionality Education International, 25(3), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.5206/eei.v25i3.7728

The UDL Guidelines. UDL. (2021, April 9). https://udlguidelines.cast.org/.

Bryn Keck is an Early Childhood Educator with more than 10 years of experience across multiple grade levels in inclusive settings, currently teaching Integrated ELL Preschool. She holds an M. Ed in Teaching English as a Second Language from The College of New Jersey and a B.S in Early Childhood Education from Ohio University.

Kimberly Cacciato graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in Mathematics Education & Deaf and Hard of Hearing Elementary Education. She is Hearing Support Teacher at Montgomery County Intermediate Unit in New Jersey.

Shelly Rasnitsyn graduated from The College of New Jersey with a BS in iSTEM and a MAT in Special Education. She is currently working as a middle school math teacher in Somerset, New Jersey. As a former ELL, Ms.Rasnitsyn is very passionate about helping students both with and without disabilities.

Solange Lopes Murphy is a teacher educator in the areas of literacy, second language acquisition, and special education at The College of New Jersey. Her areas of research focus on culturally sustaining practices, the intersections of bilingualism and special education, instructional practices for multilingual learners, and Universal Design for Learning.


Jimalee Sowell

Maya Rejepova

Jimalee: Tell me about the school you work in and the classes you teach.

Maya: I work for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat for the Public Affairs Section, English language program, which means our program is dedicated to all citizens of Turkmenistan between 16 – 40 years of age. We provide classes free of charge—whoever has a great desire to learn English, they can come to us. We teach four-skill classes with an emphasis on developing speaking skills. We have some students with physical disabilities and some students with visual-impairments.

Jimalee: What kind of training or support have you received for teaching inclusive classes that accommodate all types of learners?

Maya: I didn’t receive any special training or education for teaching in inclusive or teaching students with disabilities. One of the challenges with teaching an inclusive class has been finding ways to make sure all students can learn well. One of my daughters had a speech delay and difficulties, so I signed up for speech development classes, and there I learned some information about inclusive teaching in general—not specifically for teaching English, but in general—handling the students, the participants with needs in the class. I just always think what if I had some kind of disability and I had the chance to learn English? What would I do? What kinds of exercises or methodology would work for me? I would try to practice different activities or techniques that I thought could be helpful. With experience, I became more confident. Each semester, I learn something new about inclusive classes and teaching learners with special needs, something interesting.

Jimalee: What are some of the challenges you have faced in teaching inclusive classes?

Maya: Whenever we tried to teach only in English, we had some difficulties in the beginning. I was in a panic when I was working on a lesson plan. How would I explain the color or volume, or the experience of something for students who have never seen? But, luckily, I had students who studied at the secondary school for visually-impaired students, so they had some idea about words. I had to translate sometimes, and I would use synonyms. The difficult thing for me was to explain a new word or information, which may not be in their memory or in their vocabulary.

And, testing. At the end of every term, we have a final test. Each participant has to get a passing score so they can continue studying. It was a little difficult because the tests include reading and writing, which means participants need to see. So, I would read aloud the written portions of the test to the visually-impaired students, and I would mark their answers.

Jimalee: As I understand, recently you have focused a lot of attention on helping visually-impaired students. What have you done to learn how to teach visually-impaired students in your classes?

Maya: I started reading articles and searching for information. Now, I have more information, and I feel that I can teach better. And, also we have some non-governmental organizations for people with visually impairments and hearing impairments, and they have clubs. I asked if I could visit, and the visually-impaired students there would tell me what would work for them. I was very impressed when I got to know four people who speak very good English, and they were totally blind. They shared what would work better for them, and they all said audio—just listening and speaking. Even there is no Turkmen braille, but they came up with some way—they came up with some signs. They created a Turkmen braille. They tried to teach me, but it was very difficult for me to understand.

I was impressed even more when they told me about their hobbies and what they do. They play chess! I was also impressed about how these students worked on ways to master their learning through listening and speaking. They can memorize words. They can keep information all in their minds. Even though these students had obstacles, they could master other skills.

Jimalee: What advice would you like to share with other English language teachers who are working with visually-impaired students in inclusive classrooms but have not received any specific training for helping this population of students?

Maya: If there is no chance for training, like in my case, teachers should not be afraid. If a teacher says, “I can do it,” and if they let the visually-impaired audience to tell more, to share more, I’m sure both sides will be fine. You just need to try because if you don’t try, you never know. Of course, at the beginning, there is a failure, but every failure teaches something. In my case, it was this way. I thought that I had failure because I could not make the information at the same level of interest, and sometimes I could see that the mainstream audience was starting to be angry because they wanted to learn more, they wanted me more, but I just stopped them because I was focusing more on visually-impaired students. At the same time, when I gave too much attention to the mainstream audience, the visually-impaired audience were not bored, but they were sad because they were not as quick as the mainstream audience. So, after that, I tried to make the lessons more engaging for both the mainstream audience and the visually-impaired audience.

If I could open my own university or teaching college, I would make it compulsory to visit the schools and kindergartens where they teach students with special needs. As soon as you get to know more, it makes teaching very easy. There are some students who can see but are not good at memorizing visual information, so I started thinking about the way I could use their methodology in my classes with other students who have difficulty with memorization.

I would encourage teachers around the world to visit their neighborhood institutions where they teach students with special needs. I would recommend English language teachers visit these places. As I could see, students with special needs sometimes feel a little bit shy and not confident. But, as a teacher if you motivate and encourage them to open, they do open up. Just not being able to see is not a big obstacle. Students with visual-impairment deserve the same attitude as the mainstream audience.

Jimalee: Do you have any further recommendations?

Maya: I would encourage universities, teachers’ colleges, and certificate providers to add some fundamental training on teaching in inclusive classrooms to their modules. Because now there are many inclusive classrooms, but training programs for English language teachers don’t always provide training. If you become an English teacher, but don’t have training in inclusive classrooms, it is possible that you may not be a successful teacher.

Resources for Teachers Working with Students with Visual Impairments

  1. Teaching Students with Visual Impairments
  2. Teaching English to Visually Impaired Learners
  3. Resources for Teaching English as a Second Language to Learners with Blindness or Visual Impairment
  4. A Challenge: Teaching English to Visually-impaired Learners

Jimalee Sowell is a PhD candidate in Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Sowell has taught English as a foreign language in Korea, Ecuador, Uganda, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Ivory Coast. Her research interests include disability studies, teacher education, and second language writing instruction.

Maya Rejepova has been an English Language Instructor at the Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Ashgabat since January 2014. She graduated from the International Turkmen Turkish University with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. She is also a TEFL-certified teacher. She is mother to four children.


The Early Days

It is April 13, 1968, Birmingham, England. My fifth birthday, and my poor parents are about to receive, from the school doctor, what they will later describe as “heartbreaking news.” According to my teachers, my behavior at school has gone from being “odd” and “different” to being “strange” “problematic” and “disruptive.” No surprise really, considering the domestic violence at home (from Dad’s drinking and Mum’s clinical depression). However, the risks of being damaged at home were exceeded by the violence on the streets of England in the 1960s and 1970s, when gangs of “skinheads” wearing steel-toed, Doc Marten boots and proudly displaying their Nazi Swastika tattoos would roam the city streets, looking for people of color to verbally abuse and physically attack. (Sadly, after the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, race-based hate crimes of the kind I grew up with, returned. See for example, BBC news reports such as, “Brexit ‘major influence’ in racism and hate crime rise,” June 2019).

The buzz-cut skinheads usually targeted brown folk like me, as we were seen as the easiest targets, due to our relatively ‘scrawny’ appearance, especially compared with my Black friends. To compound the targeting problem, our parents were the third generation of British subjects born into servitude–starting when the Empire forcibly took our great-grandparents from the poor but peaceful paddy fields of Patna, Bihar, in northeast India, to work on the sugar cane plantations of what was then British Guiana. By the time my parents came along, the European slave-trading empires had coined the phrase ‘indentured’ to describe the new, post-abolition versions of slavery–albeit an apparently less brutal form than the version of slavery invented in 1619 by the USA (Asante, 2007).

As a result of my siblings and I being the first generation in our family, in more than a century, not to be born into slavery or servitude, “my people” were especially easy and tempting targets. The gallows humor that grew-up in my group was based on sayings, like: “If you a moving target, then keep yo’ sorry brown a** moving as fast as it can!” Unfortunately for me, although I eventually grew up to run marathons in my 20s, I always sucked at the sprint; tripping and falling to the ground, to be pummeled on more than one occasion, which resulted in multiple hospital visits and stays. The physical scars of those beatings have all but faded from my darkening brown skin. But nobody ever outruns the emotional ones (no matter how fast you move your a**). Inter-generational trauma is real–whatever those who have never suffered such traumas might dismissively say–so the odds were heavily stacked against my siblings and me from the beginning.

Against that backdrop, we can return to my fifth birthday. Based on my parents’ admittedly-faulty and dementia-damaged recall, the nice White lady doctor at school, in the nice white lab coat, told my mum and dad that there was “something wrong” with me. She was not sure what exactly, but I may well be “an autistic”–a good example of why I eventually left a promising medical career in healthcare in England, because of the ways in which we were taught to use language that dehumanizes the person, reducing them to a patient, then to a condition, and eventually to a diseased organ. For example, the Consultant Doctor who led our morning hospital rounds was prone to asking questions such as “How’s the irritable bowel in 24 today?” By that he meant, “How is Ms. Jones (in Bed 24) coping with her IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)?” Those moments became my cue to exit the UK healthcare system, to see if there were other, better, ways to save lives, for example, through teaching.

The 1990s and 2000s: Making Progress

Nearly 25 years later, in 1992, I found myself writing the first paper I ever published (while doing an MA and PhD in International Education, Applied Linguistics and ELT at the University of York in England). The paper was about the similarities between clinically “normal” young adults learning a foreign language and autistic young adults learning to use their first language. Like my parents, I was too ashamed at that time to mention, “Oh, and by the way, over the last 20 years, I’ve been diagnosed as being somewhere in the Autistic Spectrum three times” (five, 15 and 20 years of age). Unfortunately, the idea of a “spectrum” had not been put forward when I was growing up, when the so-called experts were still blaming parents, claiming that it was their fault, because they had been so cold—“refrigerator parents”—the experts called them. So, all there was at that time was shame and blame.

Thankfully, and mercifully, since 1968, we have come a long way in the intervening 50 years or so, regarding our understanding of the range of conditions that now come under the umbrella of “Autism.” For example, according to Renee Alli, MD (2021): “Over time, psychiatrists have developed a systematic way of describing autism and related conditions. All of these conditions are placed within a group of conditions called Autism Spectrum Disorders. Depending on how severe symptoms are, they are classified under level 1, 2 or 3” (para. 8). Dr. Alli goes on to explain that: “Autism runs in families. The underlying causes, however, are unknown. Most researchers agree that the causes are likely to be genetic, metabolic or bio-chemical, and neurological. Others also believe that environmental factors may be involved” (para. 9). Genetic, metabolic, biochemical, neurological and environmental. Really? While that list pretty much covers all the diagnostic bases, on the downside, it means we still have no idea what causes autism, which means we have no medically-based ideas for the most effective ways to help. But on the upside, at least the experts no longer blame the parents anymore.

Level 1 refers to people who “may face social challenges that require some support” [emphasis added]; at Level 2 are those who: “Even with support ... may find it hard to communicate coherently, and they are more likely to respond in ways that neurotypical people consider surprising or inappropriate.” Level 2 behaviors include “speak[ing] in short sentences; only discuss[ing] very specific topics; [and having] difficulty understanding or using nonverbal communication, including facial expression” (Kandola & Legg, 2020, paras. 6-7). Those of you who have known me over the 25 years of my active membership of TESOL International Association, IATEFL and other professional bodies such as TIRF (https://www.tirfonline.org/) may recognize some of my Level 1 and/or 2 behaviours. Level 3 individuals are those “requiring very substantial support,” who “face extreme difficulty in changing their daily activities or routine [and who] follow repetitive behavioral patterns, such as flipping objects, to the point that it affects their ability to function” (para. 8).

But let me ask you this: Do you sometimes find it “hard to communicate coherently” and have you sometimes responded “in ways that neurotypical people consider surprising or inappropriate”? Have you found yourself “speak[ing] in short sentences; only discuss[ing] very specific topics; [and having] difficulty understanding or using nonverbal communication, including facial expression”? For most of the many thousands of people I have met, from all over the world over the last 30 years, the answer to many/all of those questions is a resounding “Yes!” While it is true that those of us on the Autism Spectrum Disorder typically exhibit those kinds of behaviors more often (how often depends on the level), most people who are considered to be clinically “normal,” aka “neurotypical,” as judged by the clinical criteria above, could be said to behave “autistically” sometimes. It is, then, probably more a matter of degree rather than clear-cut distinctions between who and who is not deemed to be “autistic”–often depending on who is doing the deeming. (Language wise, it is interesting to note that the adjectival descriptor “autistically” is not yet included in any of the main English language dictionaries. Not sure why not. Maybe later.)

Language Awareness: Knowing Our Eight Ds

In this SSD group, we discuss the relationships between “Differentness” and “Disability,” emphasizing that they are not the same thing. Growing up, my skin-colored Differentness was seen as Dangerous: Differentness = Dangerous. Indeed, it is still sometimes seen as such. And with the rise of right-wing nationalistic politics, in the USA, the UK, and in many other countries, we are seeing that equation being played out around the world, in many cases, exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and exploited for personal gain by political leaders, for example, calling the Corona Virus the ‘China Virus’ (Su & Shen, 2021, p. 169). If we do not challenge the Differentness = Dangerous mindset, then the next step becomes: That Which is Different Must be Destroyed: Differentness = Dangerous = Destruction. Then there are the Ds of Diagnosis and Disorder, resulting in people being “diagnosed with a disorder.” As language teachers and learners, it behooves us to think and talk about the differences between, for example, someone “diagnosed with a disease” versus someone “displaying different behaviors.” That powerfully negative language, dressed up in the guise of “medical-speak,” can deeply divide us, based on falsely dichotomous distinctions, such as “I am normal” versus “You are not.”


Alli, R.A. (2021, May 4). What does the word ‘autism’ mean? WedMB. https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/what-does-autism-mean

Asante, M.K. (2007). Slavery remembrance day memorial lecture 2007. National Museums Liverpool. https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ideological-origins-of-chattel-slavery-british-world

BBC NEWS. (2019, June 20). Brexit 'major influence' in racism and hate crime rise. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-48692863

Kandola, A., & Legg, T.J. (2020, June 14). Levels of autism: Everything you need to know. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325106

Su, R. & Shen, W. (2021). Is nationalism rising in times of the COVID-19 pandemic? Individual-level evidence from the United States. Journal of Chinese Political Science, 26(1), 169-187. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11366-020-09696-2

From 2015 to 2016, Dr. Andy Curtis served as the 50th President of TESOL International Association. He has published 200 articles, book chapters and books, and presented to 50,000 language educators in 100 countries. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Anaheim, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works with language education organizations around the world.



TESOL’s Supporting Students with Disabilities Interest Section (SSDIS) strives to promote understanding of the unique challenges of English learners with disabilities and promote effective pedagogical strategies to meet these needs. We seek to achieve this mission through accessible professional development activities and collaborative research across the fields within and adjacent to TESOL.


Are you interested in publishing an article in the “Difference and Disability Matters” Newsletter? Join Jimalee and Solange, editors of Difference and Disability Matters Newsletter at TESOL Convention 2022. The session, entitled “Supporting Students with Disabilities: A Venue to Share Practices,” will provide participants with an overview of the newsletter and detailed information on how to contribute to the newsletter. The presenters will stimulate interaction to identify topics to be considered in the newsletter and will welcome questions. If you have any questions about this session at TESOL 2022, you can contact the co-editors.